Thursday, January 31, 2008

Don Juan in Chicago

I don't get review every play I'd like to. My column in The News Tribune allows me to review one play a week and no more. It's a great gig because I get to see a lot of theater, and most of what I get to see is really good.

Every once in awhile a play comes along that cries out to be promoted as much as possible, but because of prior commitments or schedule conflicts I am unable to review it. Such is the case with "Don Juan in Chicago" at the Midnight Sun. I haven't seen it yet, but I intend to, and I urge all of my readers to see it as well -- this based on a brief synopsis and the cast list, which includes some of my favorite actors in the Olympia area.

I received this note in an e-mail from Elizabeth Lord: "Hey everybody I am in a play again, and this one if sooooo good. It's funny, clever, AND sexual. What more could you want?"

And from the director, Keith Eisner: "I'm directing 'Don Juan in Chicago' at the Midnight Sun. I love this play. And I've been blessed with a terrific cast and crew. Here's the dope:

"The title character is cursed by getting what he asks for: immortality and unlimited sex. He cuts a deal with the devil that lets him live forever as long as he seduces a different woman a day. He makes the deal as a blushing, naive virgin in 1599. Fast forward to modern day Chicago, and the Don and his earthy servant, Leporello, are sick and weary of the whole deal. But the world keeps banging at his door and all hell breaks loose."

The show runs for three weeks, dates listed below.

Don Juan in Chicago
by David Ives
Directed by Keith Eisner

Featuring Tim Goebel, Dennis Rolly, Ingrid Pharris, Christian Carvajal, Elizabeth Lord, Erik Cornelius, Cass Murphy, and Chris Cantrell.

February 7,8,9,14,15,16,17,21,22,23, 2008
Showtime: 8:00 PM
The Midnight Sun Performance Space 113 N. Columbia Street in downtown Olympia
Tickets: $7 - $15 (on a sliding scale- pay more if you can, less if you can't) or purchase online and reserve yourself a seat go to:

[Adult humor and language, maybe not for kids under 15]

The Helm

Downtown art gallery is colorful

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan 31, 2008
Pictured: study for “Time Machine” by Ellen Ito and Nicholas Nyland.

For starters, the exhibition called “This is a Time Machine” at The Helm is colorful and visually exciting, and it begs some interesting questions about the use of found objects in art. Such as just how much of the work should actually be created by the artist? Is it enough for the artist to choose the work and stick it in the gallery — a time-honored tradition that goes back to Marcel Duchamp’s famous “Fountain” — or should the artist actually make some aesthetic judgments about the placement of the found objects as Ellen Ito and Nicholas Nyland have done in this collaborative work?

There are only two works in this installation. In the front room is an enclosure that looks like a Quonset hut made of colorful sheets of cardboard. It fills the entire room, leaving barely enough space for viewers to walk around it. It is the title piece, “Time Machine.” In the back room is a piece called “Affinity” that consists of 20-something found afghans draped around a corner of the room and taking up two walls.

What these two works have in common is brilliant color and a mishmash of patterns that are so wild you would think they would clash like striped pants and a plaid shirt. There are bright pink, yellow, blue, green, orange, and violet stripes, bands, checks, zigzags, circles, squares, and various squiggly marks that all fit together amazingly well.

In “Affinity,” all of these colors are parts of traditional patterns. In “Time Machine,” they are painted by hand by Ito and Nyland on cardboard that is cut into various shapes (predominantly triangular) and attached to a rickety wooden frame. Added to this are colored lightbulbs that encircle the outer shell. The inside is left unfinished and unpainted — raw wood and unpainted cardboard with numerous gaps that let light in. Two ottomans draped with colorful afghans sit on the floor inside next to a large globe light on the floor.

My initial reaction was that the inside should have been finished in some manner, perhaps with an inner skin reflective of the outer skin. But as I looked at it I began to think that maybe there’s some artistic reason for leaving the unadorned evidence of how the object was made and not attempting to pretty it up. And I found that the chance patterns created by light coming through the openings and the structural grid were aesthetically pleasing. Although, I still think the artists could have found a more artistic way of finishing the interior that would have maintained that look. And I think the lightbulbs attached to the outside are a distraction that adds nothing to the look.

Overall, the ideas expressed and the construction are thought provoking and attractive. Best of all is the wonderfully playful painting on the outer shell done with loosely brushed tempera paint in bright, semi-transparent colors.

I find “Affinity” more questionable as art. A basic premise of found art is the discovery of beauty in objects that were not originally intended to be beautiful. The prototype, Duchamp’s “Fountain,” was a common urinal, an object of common and profane use that was never intended to be beautiful; yet, many an art lover has commented on its formal beauty. Afghans, on the other hand, are made with an eye toward beauty. And displaying them in this manner is no different than displaying them in a show window for sale. It is, in fact, very beautiful. But I question it as a work of art.

I could be wrong. I’ll admit this much: If I had seen the “Fountain” when it was first displayed rather than having read about it in art history books, I probably would have thought it was downright stupid and ugly to boot. I could be equally wrong about “Affinity.” So I encourage you to see this show and judge for yourself.

[The Helm, “This is Time Machine” by Ellen Ito and Nicholas Nyland, Thursday-Saturday noon to 6 p.m., through Feb. 13, 760 Broadway, Tacoma]

Friday, January 25, 2008

‘Crazy/Naked’ scores political, comedic points

Published in The News Tribune, Jan. 25, 2008
Pictured: Yana Kasala, left, Luke Amundson and Eric Hartley. Photo by Tim Robinson

Theatergoers who have never experienced a Breeders Theater production at the E.B. Foote Winery in Burien should go at least once. It is quite an experience.

And this political season is the perfect time to go because their current show is a comedy/drama about a campaign we can all recognize. Try to recall the most absurd statewide campaign you’ve ever experienced, change the names and, in some cases, the gender of the candidates, and you have “Crazy/Naked,” a play about a senatorial race written by local playwright T.M. Sell, founder of Breeders Theater and teacher of political science, economics and journalism at Highline College.

The play is funny, cleverly written and politically astute. It is also magnificently acted. So well acted, in fact, that the audience tends to forget they are watching a play, this despite the fact that it takes place on the bare concrete floor of a winery between rows of wine barrels with no real set and no theatrical lighting other than the lights going off and on at the end of each scene.

I could tell that the audience was getting swept up into the politics because some audience members seemed to be applauding the political speeches rather than the acting. One man sitting three seats away from me applauded so enthusiastically that he scared me when right-wing nut job Sen. Patty Proud (Kelly Johnson) vehemently defended the right to bear arms.

In the opening dialogue between political operatives Cindy (Yana Kesala) and Tom (Luke Amundson), it seems the writer is trying too hard to be clever (a fault shared with the likes of Neil Simon). He even trots out an old political saw, “I profess to be a pimple on the derriere of politics,” which I probably wouldn’t have recognized had I not heard a variation the night before in Olympia Little Theatre’s production of “Moonlight and Magnolias.”

And at the end of the play the writer climbs on his soapbox in the person of political hack Arch (Eric Hartley) for an unnecessary harangue about taking responsibility for electing idiots. Everything in between these two moments is sheer lunacy mixed with political acumen.

The three major actors, Kesala, Amundson and Hartley, are all believable as campaign workers.

Kesala, a Shakespearean actress who recently arrived here from England, is the glue that holds this production together. She’s an old-line ’70s-style feminist who does not trust her male co-workers. It is wonderful to watch Cindy’s anger slowly melt in the face of Tom’s obvious sincerity. There is one marvelous scene in which the two of them circle one another in a kind of wary ballet, or like boxers in a ring afraid to engage one another, and Kesala and Amundson’s subtle facial expressions are a demonstration of what great acting is all about.

Also outstanding are Johnson as the outlandish, pistol-packing Patty Proud, who wears an ill-fitting blond wig and struts like a rooster; and J. Howard Boyd in a variety of supporting roles including the title role of crazy naked guy (who doesn’t actually get naked).

One other actor of note is Teresa Widner as left-wing senatorial candidate Lucinda K. Fielding. She is as self-righteous as Patty Proud but without the absurd posturing. Widner plays this role with absolute sincerity. She also doubles up in a few other roles, including a delightful but brief appearance as a seductress who tries to entice a political doorbeller.

The central conceit of the show is phantom candidate Mike Wayne, who may or may not really exist. Wayne is put up as a candidate for state senator, and an entire political campaign is waged on his behalf without him ever showing up. Whether or not he actually exists, and if so, who he is and where he’s been during the campaign, is all made clear in the ironic twist at the end.

The show includes wine tasting and hors d’oeurves.

WHEN: 7 p.m. tonight, Saturday, Wednesday and Feb. 1-2; 2 p.m. Sunday; 1 p.m. Feb. 3
WHERE: E.B. Foote Winery, 127-B S.W. 153rd St., Burien
TICKETS: $20 available at the winery and at Corky Cellars, 22511 Marine View Drive, Des Moines; 206-824-9462
INFORMATION: E.B. Foote Winery, 206-242-3852

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Felt good

Faith Hagenhofer and Julie Simpson at Black Front Gallery

published in the Weekly Volcano Jan 24, 2008

pictured: “Stitch” series, acrylic, paper and nylon, by Julie Simpson
and "Remains" (detail) felt, by Faith Hagenhofer

Faith Hagenhofer is among the more inventive artists working in the South Sound region. I especially appreciate the many ways in which she takes advantage of and, in some cases, works against the natural properties of her chosen media — felt, mostly felt; woven, matted, soft and furry felt.

I was impressed with her recent exhibition at South Puget Sound Community College and wished I’d had the opportunity to see more of her work. Now she’s showing in the tiny Black Front Gallery in Olympia and sharing the space with one other artist. So once again I wish there were an opportunity to see more.

Hagenhofer has about eight pieces in this show. A few wall pieces, a hanging sculpture, other sculptures attached to the wall, and two pieces of furniture. A press release calls the furniture functional, but a sign in the gallery asks visitors not to sit on her chairs, which would indicate to me that they’re not very functional after all. They are, however, very attractive.

The best things in the show are two wall hangings that function aesthetically as paintings. Called “Resettlement” and “Remains,” they consist of groups of flat felt sheets in beautiful shades of glowing olive green. On these green backgrounds are the shapes of shirts in a dark gray-blue (“Resettlement”) and beige (“Remains”). To explain further: There are four rectangular shapes in “Resettlement.” Random smaller rectangles in dark blue float on the surface of the far left rectangle. One step to the right there are fewer and larger floating blue rectangles. One more step to the right and they come together to form an almost recognizable shirt shape, and the shirt takes even more shape in the last one. In other words, random floating shapes resettle themselves into a shirt front. In “Remains,” a similar process takes place. Only in this one, the shirt vanishes little by little until at last there is nothing left but a ghost image in the form of an irregular ridge.

Hagenhofer also shows a couple of sculptural pieces that I find a little too gimmicky even though they are beautifully crafted. They are pieces of furniture cut in half and displayed against the wall so as to look like they are coming out of the wall.
Also outstanding is a sculptural Jacob’s ladder made from pillows hanging on a pulley and rope device. It is interactive with moving parts viewers can control, but that part didn’t impress me as much as the abstract form. The pillows are decorated with woven pictures of a woman’s face in beautiful tones of gray and black like a sensitive charcoal drawing. The formal elements are beautiful, but I wish the faces were not recognizable as such. It seems to me that she did the faces as a concession to the public.

Also showing are works in acrylic, paper and nylon by Julie Simpson. The best of these are probably the three works in a series called “Stitch,” which consists of overlapping patterns of tree branches and green leaves and thin black lines. The lines, which look like they were drawn with the finest of ink pens, are actually inlaid nylon threads. There is also a similar large painting on heavy black impasto and a group of six 5-inch by 5-inch paintings of abstract landscapes in orange, green and white. Here again are incredibly thin black lines that I suspect are also nylon threads although I can’t tell for sure from looking.

We know from solicitation letters the gallery has sent out that it is on its last leg financially. That’s a shame, but it’s not unexpected. This area has never been very supportive of contemporary galleries. I don’t know how many more shows the gallery will have, but this one, at least, will run through Jan. 29. Go see it while you can.

[Black Front Gallery, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday-Saturday, through Jan. 29, 106 Fourth Ave., Olympia, 360.786.6032]

Friday, January 18, 2008

Satiric ‘Urinetown’ offers outstanding entertainment

Published in The News Tribune, Jan. 18, 2008

pictured: one of many big song and dance numbers in "Urinetown," photo by Kat Dollarhide

Urinetown” is one of the more bizarre musical comedies ever to grace the American stage. And one of the more entertaining.

It does not live up to any of the normal expectations of a musical comedy. It is satirical and cynical to the extreme. It addresses such major issues as corporate greed, government corruption and the tyrannical subjugation of the weak and powerless by the rich and powerful. And it also parodies musical comedy as a genre, making relentless fun of itself in a curious mix of the ultra serious and the ultra absurd.

Set in an unidentified town in the not-too-distant future, The UGC Corporation (Urine Good Company) has control of all public restroom facilities, which are run on a “pay to pee” basis. There are no private facilities (except, presumably, in the boardrooms at UGC, but this is never mentioned), and going in the bushes is strictly against the law. Anyone caught doing so is banished to Urinetown – a mysterious place none of the people have ever seen and no one has ever returned from.

The people rebel, storming Amenity No. 9 and refusing to pay. They are led in their revolution by an idealistic young hero, Bobby Strong (Matt Posner).

The head of UGC is the evil Caldwell B. Cladwell (Andrew Fry). Mr. Cladwell has a daughter named Hope (Caresse Lemieux) who has just graduated from “the most expensive college in the world” and is going to work for her father as a fax and copy girl. And wouldn’t you just know it? Hope falls in love with Bobby and becomes a pawn in the battle between her lover and her father.

The police, who enforce the draconian laws put into effect by Cladwell, are led by a couple of Keystone Kop types: Officer Lockstock (Mark Rake-Marona) and Officer Barrel (Chris Serface). In addition to being the top cop, Officer Lockstock steps out of character throughout the play to narrate, explaining what is going on to the audience and answering the pesky questions of Little Sally (Laura Posey).

When she asks what’s going on, he explains that it’s the big musical number where the whole cast comes on stage to sing and dance; and when she worries about a developing situation, he tells her it will be worked out in Act 2. He also warns her that this is not a happy musical.

Officer Lockstock is a pragmatic cop, and his bits with Little Sally are a series of Burns and Allen-like sketches that he plays like a series of vaudeville shticks and she plays with a wide-eyed innocence somewhere between Gracie Allen and Little Orphan Annie.

The overall look and feel of this play, as well as the dramatic arch of the story line, is borrowed from “Les Misérables” and is presented in such a way as to deflate such serious musicals. There are dances and crowd scenes that borrow directly from “Les Misérables” and from other popular musicals such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “West Side Story.” (The strange twist they give to the bottle dance from “Fiddler” is worth the price of admission.)

The entire cast and crew are outstanding. The set by scenic artist Dori Conklin, with set construction by Patrick Murray and Stephen Leonard, is one of the best I’ve ever seen from Tacoma Musical Playhouse, made even better by John Chenault’s superb lighting. The only sore spot in this great set is the big UGC logo, which looks like it was designed by a mediocre sophomore art student.

Lemieux and Kae Blum as Penelope Pennywise are terrific singers, as is Posner. The three of them play their roles with utmost earnestness. Rake-Marona, who has been in almost every show I’ve ever seen at TMP, has found a perfect fit as Officer Lockstock.

As usual at TMP, the big song and dance numbers are show stoppers. The choreography is better and the dancers more exuberant than I’ve seen since “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Deserving of special attention in small ensemble roles are Jenny McMurry and Josh Wingerter.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 3, additional performances at 2 p.m. Jan. 26 and Feb. 2
WHERE: The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave.
TICKETS: Adults $23, students/military $21, children 12 and younger $16
INFORMATION: 253-565-6867,

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bad boys

Originality may not be all it’s cracked up to be

published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan 17, 2008

I’ve been in a really bad mood all week. I should find some local art to review, but the way I’ve been feeling lately I’ll probably hate anything I see. Here’s the thing: I go to see local art exhibits, and what I see is stuff that’s been around half a century or more. It seems like nobody’s doing anything original.

But then I look at the so-called art stars in major art centers such as New York and London, and I think that maybe what passes for cutting edge isn’t so hot after all. Since the early 1980s, the hot stars of the art world have been the bad boys of contemporary art: Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, David Salle, John Currin, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons. Bad because they brake the rules and the boundaries of good taste.

One of Fischl’s most famous early paintings, in fact, was titled “Bad Boy.” It’s a tawdry and overly dramatic painting of a prepubescent or barely pubescent boy staring between the legs of a naked woman, painted with overly dramatic lighting and harsh shadows. Fischl is a moderately talented painter, but his subject matter is overly dramatic and titillating.

Pretty much the same can be said for Salle except that I think his painting style is rather clumsy. It was considered radical of him to combine unrelated images in a collage fashion — as if Picasso and Braque and the Surrealists hadn’t already done that a thousand times. Mainly, Salle paints pictures in which the parts don’t fit together. And that’s considered avant-garde?

Schnabel is somewhat out of fashion now but has become a film director (Best Director Golden Globe for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) and may prove to be better at that than at painting. Early on he was hailed as the leader of the so-called neo-Expressionists. His greatest claim to fame was putting broken plates on canvas. Now they are a curator’s nightmare because they are falling apart. I have to admit that there is a certain impressive boldness to some of his paintings. They are big, brash and sloppy. But he has absolutely no artistic sensibility that I can see.

Jeff Koons has tried, like Andy Warhol before him, to make his whole life — his carefully crafted persona — into a work of art. I’ll give him this: he is witty and inventive, but he’s no Andy Warhol. Among his more enduring images are “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” an 18th-century, rococo statue of a white-faced Michael Jackson with a yellow-bearded monkey, and a 43-foot-tall puppy made of soil and blooming flowers over a steel frame. He also did a famous series of sculptures of he and his wife (a famous porn star) having sex. Talk about taking self-aggrandizement to the limit!

And then there’s Hirst, most famous for putting a dead shark in a huge tank filled with formaldehyde. I’ve never seen it in person. I imagine it is rather formidable, but it seems to me this is something that belongs in a natural history museum, not an art gallery.

John Currin is the latest of the bad boy painters to take New York by storm. The funny thing about Currin is that the critics universally dislike his subject matter but praise his marvelous technical skills as a painter. I find his technical skills a small step above mediocre at best. Now I’ll admit, I can’t paint that skillfully, nor can the average amateur painter. But there are thousands of artists who can do much better. Currin first became famous for painting semi-realistic sweater girls that look like the real-life models for Betty and Veronica from the “Archie” comics — only these girls have breasts that make Dolly Parton look like Calista Flockhart.

Sorry, you can’t go to your neighborhood art gallery and see any of these artists. But they’re easy to find on the Web. If you have some time to kill, I’d suggest you Google them.


Tacoma Art Museum scores major Renoir exhibition

published in the Weekly Volcano,Jan 17, 2008

pictured: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Pinning the Hat" (Berthe Morisot’s daughter and her cousin), circa 1894. Private Collection.
"La danse à la campagne" [Dance in the Country], circa 1890. Private Collection. Photos by Richard Nicol.

It’s a two-cliché show: eye-popping and mind-boggling. It’s “Renoir as Printmaker: The Complete Works, 1876-1912” at Tacoma Art Museum.

Some consider Pierre-Auguste Renoir one of the lesser of the great French impressionist painters. Admired for his glowing, rosy colors, he is nevertheless considered far too romantic and too syrupy sweet. His paintings are seen as somewhat mushy, and his pear-shaped nudes are anything but beautiful. Yet, all of that criticism comes tumbling down like an ill-constructed house of cards when viewing his prints — and he was never well known as a printmaker.

For an artist admired as a colorist, ironically it is the lack of color in his prints that brings out the best in these works. No longer blinded by the confection of his color, we see here what a marvelous draftsman he was. We see the variety of his contour lines, the rhythm of his stroke, his delicate touch, his mastery of tonal contrasts.

It was famously said of Cezanne that he was nothing but an eye, but what an eye. Looking at Renoir’s prints, I can imagine it being said he was nothing but a hand, but what a hand. And that is doubly amazing considering that most of these prints were done late in life when he was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. His hands were so gnarled and painful that he could barely hold the lithographic crayons he drew with. By the early 1900s, he was so crippled that assistants strapped his paint brushes to his hand.

Renoir did not take up printmaking until late in his career, partly at the urging of others and partly because he saw it as a way to easily meet the demand for his work in his later years. There was, at the time, a resurgence in printmaking, and many of Renoir’s contemporaries took it up.

“Renoir and his fellow French impressionists welcomed the mid-19th-century revival of printmaking as an art form,” says Margaret Bullock, Tacoma Art Museum curator of collections and special exhibitions and curator of the Renoir exhibition. “It allowed them to pursue some of the same subjects they were exploring in their paintings. They used loose, expressive gestures; captured fleeting moments in time; revisited a motif at different seasons or times of day; and depicted scenes from everyday life through printmaking as much as through painting. Prints also appealed to the impressionists because they were inexpensive and made the artwork easily available to the general public.”

For Renoir, etching and lithographs were an adjunct to painting, and although some of the works in this exhibition are highly finished, most are sketchy, and the many variations on a few themes indicate that he also used printmaking as a way of experimenting with different solutions to aesthetic problems. This is seen in the nudes, where only one or two models and the same two poses show up over and over. There is a seated nude seen from behind and to one side with her body slightly twisted and a reclining nude. These same two nudes are seen facing left and facing right, in sepia tones, in black and white and in color, in etchings and in lithographs. And both are familiar from famous Renoir paintings. Similarly, there are many variations on the theme of two young girls with flowery hats. In most versions one of the girls is pinning flowers on the other’s hat. Also included in the exhibition is the painting of this same subject, “Têtes de deux jeunes filles” (also known as “The Two Sisters”), from Tacoma Art Museum’s collection.

It is fascinating to compare the many variations of the same pictures.

Drawn from a local private collection, this exhibition comprises the complete known collection of Renoir’s graphic art, and it will be shown exclusively at Tacoma Art Museum. It includes 25 etchings and 35 lithographs. In addition to the many nudes and studies of children at play, there are many portraits of Renoir’s children and of his artist friends. Among the portraits are one of Berthe Morisot, one of Paul Cezanne, and a rather stern portrait of the composer Richard Wagner.

Getting this show in Tacoma is a real coup.

[Tacoma Art Museum, “Renoir as Printmaker: The Complete Works, 1876-1912,” Jan. 17-June 29, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Third Thursday 10 a.m.- 8 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m.; $6.50-$7.50, family $25 (two adults and up to four children under 18), 5 and under free, Third Thursdays free, 253.272.4258,].

Friday, January 11, 2008

‘Colored Museum’ pieces mix comedy, drama

Published in The News Tribune, Jan. 11, 2008

pictured: Jeffrey Brown and Celeste Richardson, photo courtesy Tacoma Little Theatre

Tacoma Little Theatre’s second-stage productions are its equivalent of independent film or fringe theater. This is where it stretches its wings and flies. This is where it gets relevant. TLT’S next second-stage outing is George C. Wolfe’s Dramatist Guild Award-winning play “The Colored Museum.”

The theater’s Web site states: “Considered one of the most powerful, as well as controversial, pieces in African American theatrical literature, this brilliant collection of comic and dramatic sketches examines the legacy and realities of the black experience in America.”

It is presented as 11 skits, each staged as a kind of museum diorama with revolving sets.

The setting for the first skit, “Git on Board,” is an airplane flying through time with stopovers at moments of black history. (The airplane is also a slave ship.)

A saucy airline hostess named Miss Pat (Ashanti Mangum) welcomes passenger slaves onboard and instructs them on how to fasten their shackles. She tells them to enjoy the flight but obey the rules: no drumming, no call and response, no rebellion, and wear shackles at all times. Her costume is 1960s airline stewardess, but her attitude is hip-hop jive.

This opening bit sets the mood for pieces to come, which range from satire to camp to horror and melodrama.

In “Cooking with Aunt Ethel,” Carmen Brantley-Payne, dressed as an Aunt Jemima with head scarf and apron, gives soul cooking instructions while singing a soulful gospel song.

“The Photo Session” features two Ebony magazine models (Celeste Richardson and Jeffrey Brown) who are aware that their lives are phony.

“Soldier with a Secret” is a hauntingly sad piece with David Dear playing a soldier who has died and come back to life. He painfully relates how he was caught in an explosion and the skin melted right off his arms down to the bone, and he didn’t even feel any pain. That was how he knew he was dead. He didn’t feel any pain.

“The Gospel According in Miss Roj” stars Brown as a wisecracking gay man who refers to herself with feminine pronouns and calls herself the Snap Queen. When she makes a telling point she emphasizes it with an emphatic snap of her fingers. Miss Roj covers up a lot of pain with her sassy attitude.

“The Hair Piece” is one of the most surrealistic scenes I’ve ever seen acted out on stage. Carmen Brantley-Payne enters a dressing room and sits in front of a mirror. In front of her are two mannequin wig holders that come alive and argue over which of them she will wear. The wigs are Richardson and LaNita Hudson.

The only piece involving the full cast, “The Last Man on the Couch Play” is a play within a play that parodies such African American dramas as “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuff” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” In it, the characters take turns trying to out-act one another.

Questions of blackness come up in numerous skits, bringing to mind the current flap over whether or not Barack Obama is black enough. Dear, who has light skin, says he’s colored only on the weekends in one sketch, and in another he symbolically throws away everything that reminds him of his blackness and divorces himself from his own rage (personified by Brown).

Another surrealistic and highly melodramatic skit is “Lala’s Opening,” which is both an acting and a singing tour de force for Mangum. This skit goes a little too long and begins to drag in places, but it is worth the wait to get to the shocking end.

“The Colored Museum” is not an easy play to watch. It does not have mass appeal, and it is recommended for mature audiences due to adult language and situations.

It opens tonight and runs two weekends only. I saw it in rehearsal and would love to see it again.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 20
WHERE: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281,

Time warp

South Puget Sound Community College show looks like early modernism

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan 10, 2008

pictured: "Expand," digital print by Anthony Culonag; "Light Entertainment," oil on canvas by Bill Collins; "Deer in Bear Coat," oil on paper by Karen LaGrave.

As juried art shows go, the Third Annual Regional Juried Art Exhibit at the Kenneth J. Minnaert Art Center, South Puget Sound Community College, is not bad. There are some old friends as well as some excellent artists I’ve never before seen. There are a couple of sappy landscapes, a way-too-cute kitty-cat picture and one obvious Georgia O’Keefe knockoff.

I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with a juror’s choice of Best in Show, and this show is no exception. Scott Mulholland’s little watercolor “Red White & Blue” is a nicely composed rendering of an old couch sitting in front of what appears to be an abandoned factory. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of disparate objects that sets off thoughts of some movieland, post-apocalyptic world. But it loses power due to its tiny scale, and intriguing as the imagery may be, it is certainly not the best thing in the show.

Had I been the juror I would have given that honor to Michael Born for his large welded steel sculpture “Untitled Pair.” This is a proud and menacing pairing of two almost identical machinelike figures — hybrids between man and machine wielding heavy hammers with which they pound spikes into their own heads, which are made of massive, dark forms that look like ceramic pots enclosed by an angular web of steel rods. The two figures remind me of Morris Grave’s instruments of navigation that were shown at Tacoma Art Museum a few years back. They carry mystery and beauty, and I like it that the two figures are perfectly balanced mirror images of one another.

Runners-up — had I been the judge — would have been Anthony Culanag’s trio of digital prints, “Rift,” “Expand” and “Rip,” and either Karen Lagrave’s duo of oil paintings, “Deer in Wedding Dress” and “Deer in Bear Coat,” or Suzana Bulatovic’s oil painting, “Rain.”

I surprise myself in picking Lagrave and Bulatovic’s work because while I was in the gallery I thought their paintings were OK but nothing spectacular. But the more I think about them, the more I like them — especially Bulatovic’s “Rain.”

Culanag’s trio of digital prints are distorted photographs (à la carnival fun house mirrors) of a woman in a red dress on a surface that looks like dried hills of mud with the ground rippled into waves and the woman’s body twisted like a pretzel. I was told that the photo was taken in front of Tacoma Art Museum. More likely it was taken in the courtyard where the Chihuly floats are, but before they were installed.

Bulatovic’s painting pictures a sidewalk in the rain crowded with people carrying umbrellas. Figures are blobs of paint. The oddly shaped umbrellas look like toadstools in the rain and create swirling patterns across the canvas. Her palette, predominantly reds and blues, is muted but vibrant. This painting reminds me of some of Mark Toby’s early paintings of Seattle street scenes.

Lagrave (who many area art lovers will remember as Karen Lagrave Small) is showing two little oil paintings on paper in a style borrowed from Native American artists with perhaps a little Arshile Gorky influence. These paintings are of deer dressed in, as the titles imply, a wedding dress and a bear coat. They are delicate, sketchy and atmospheric with a nice combination of energetic marks and soft washes of color.

Another painting of note is Bill Collins’ oil painting “Light Entertainment.” Like Lagrave’s paintings, this one is sketchy. It is a painting of two women and a man at a dance or party dressed in evening gowns and tux. A brownish-yellow light suffuses everything. The figures are reminiscent of early American painters such as George Luks or John Sloan in his more impressionistic works — which kind of typifies the whole show. Everything in this show could have been done in the first half of the last century.

[South Puget Sound Community College, Third Annual Regional Juried Art Exhibit, through Jan. 31, Tuesday-Saturday noon-5 p.m., 2011 Mottman Rd. S.W., Olympia, 360.596.5508]

Monday, January 7, 2008


I received an email from an old friend who is a book reviewer. His comment upon finishing The Wives of Marty Winters was “Not bad, although it was impossible to read it without picturing you, Gabi, etc. in the characters. Of course, I didn't know the middle-aged transsexual, but I kept picturing John Lithgow anyway ;-)”

Interesting comment that brings up some interesting thoughts about how much a fiction writer should draw on personal experience. In my more self-critical moments I feel that my last two novels, and especially the latest, were more autobiographical than my first one. Lew Hamburg, in a review for the Olympian, called my second novel, Imprudent Zeal, “a tour de force of autobiographical fiction.” But, in fact, only one small section of that book was autobiographical, and I acknowledged it in an author’s note in the book. It was the section about Scully McDonald and Everything for Everybody. It was based on Jack Scully and the organization of the same name he founded and Gabi and I worked for. But Scully’s complete history from childhood through young adulthood -- including his relationship with the drug addict/prostitute Becca -- was 100 percent imagination, as were the complete life histories of Becca and her daughter, McKenzie.

As for seeing me and Gabi in The Wives of Marty Winters, those characters were based on people we have known –- primarily Carolyn Wagner, a dear friend and former national PFLAG vice president and a tireless warrior in the battle against bias-based violence. This is really a PFLAG story, and Marty and Selena are every PFLAG family.

Still, I have been thinking for quite some time now that my next work of fiction needs to be far more imaginative and that I need to challenge myself to construct a story that does not draw on personal experience. With that in mind, I have already written a synopsis and an opening chapter of a new novel with the working title The Backside of Nowhere.

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Thriller follows Centerstage director to Federal Way

Alan Bryce, artistic director of Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way, is no Johnny Come Lately to the world of theater. He’s an actor, a director and a playwright with extensive experience in New York and London. We are fortunate that he decided to settle in the Puget Sound Area.

And now we are blessed with the opportunity to see a revision of one of his earliest plays, “Nightmare of a Married Man,” which was a big hit in the London fringe circuit back in the late’70s.

“A long time ago,” Bryce recalls, “I was Artistic Director of the Overground Theatre, which for a brief and brilliant few years was one of London’s leading fringe theatres. We transferred some shows to the West End, to BBC TV, to BBC Radio and to commercial success elsewhere. It was a very exciting time for a young guy in his twenties.”

At that time, Anthony Shaffer’s play “Sleuth” had been enjoying phenomenal success, and Shaffer followed with another play called “Murderer.” Bryce says the follow up to a successful play is “the most difficult play of all to write – my point being that after you have had a major commercial hit with your first play the next play is the tough one, because everyone will compare it unfavorably with the play that made your name.”

“Murderer” was a conventional stage thriller with one unusual twist: in the first 35 minutes there is no dialogue. Instead, there is 35 minutes of Grand Guignol humor. That’s a style of theater popular in Paris in the Belle Époque – the same period that produced “A Flea in Her Ear,” which Centerstage recently performed. Grand Guignol focuses on the macabre; it is not funny.

In Shaffer’s play, the protagonist is an artist who slips his attractive female model a Mickey Finn. She passes out; he strips her naked and carries her up to the bath – “and then proceeds to extract a lot of comedy (would you believe?) by dismembering her.

“Well, the West End Producer thought the old ladies wouldn’t be able to take the dismembering. So all that was cut. There was not much to the rest of the play, and it closed in a week. It was then revived by a small regional theatre (the now defunct Redgrave Theatre in Farnham), was treated as a melodrama...and bombed again.”

Bryce selected “Murderer” for the Overground, and they played it not as comedy but as “absolute reality.” He said it was a huge success and Shaffer was overjoyed.

Bryce was inspired by “Murderer,” both on a commercial and artistic level. He said he “saw what sold” and set himself the task of writing something that would be popular. “I had always felt that stage thrillers never addressed the real world. Whether it was Agatha Christie and her high society types or the assortment of artists, playwrights and theatrical caricatures that seem to populate more contemporary thrillers. I wanted to write a play with all the twists and turns of the genre, but set in a world most theatergoers could relate directly to. So I set it in the suburban world in which I grew up.”

The play was a big success in London, and film director Piers Haggard wanted to direct the play on the West End. He got his friend Oliver Reed to agree to do it, but the producer couldn’t come to terms with Reed’s agent, and the deal fell through.
Bryce calls it the play where he lost his innocence. “I thought I had it made,” he says. “Such is the reality of the business.”

Bryce recently re-read the script and thought it was “pretty good.” He revised it extensively and presented it in an audience poll along with a number of better-known plays such as “Lost in Yonkers” and Stephen King’s “Misery,” and the audience voted for it overwhelmingly. He says he thinks it is the title they liked.

“It would be a mistake to say that ‘Nightmare’ is a Grand Guignol-style play,” Bryce says, “but it does have one element that echoes the Grand Guignol spirit.” (He would not clarify what that “one element” is, preferring to maintain some mystery.)

“Immodestly, I have to say that it was a huge hit for us in London. It ran in repertoire with the English premier of Edward Albee’s “Seascape.” It got much better reviews than the Albee and did much better business. I think Centerstage audiences have to prepare themselves for a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns where you can never be certain what will happen next. And plenty of laughs. I like to describe it thus: It’s not a whodunit. It’s a WHOWILLDOWOT?”

“Nightmare of a Married Man” opens Feb. 29 and runs through March 16.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 29-March 16
WHERE: Knutzen Family Theater, 3200 SW Dash Point Rd., Federal Way
TICKETS: $8 to $25 depending on age
INFORMATION: 253-661-1444,

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Winter warmth

Dying to get inside One Heart Cafe

published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan 3, 2008
pictured: Untitled, collage by Elaine Faaborg
Photo by Julie Bennett

Saturday morning I waited outside of One Heart Café with a bunch of artists from the gallery formerly known as a.o.c., hoping someone would come and let us in. There was supposed to be a meeting over coffee of these artists who are taking over the management of the gallery. But the café was not open. A flashing neon sign said OPEN, and the hours posted on the window seemed to agree with our watches, but we couldn’t get in.

And I very much wanted to get in, not only because it was cold outside but because I could see through the window a display of collages by Elaine Faaborg that I wanted to get a closer look at.

The artists’ meeting moved to Tully’s, and I never did get that close look at Faaborg’s collages. I did, however, see a bunch online.

Faaborg, I’m told, is an octogenarian. That in itself is fairly fascinating. But her art should be recognized for its intrinsic value, not because the artist has been on this earth a long time.
Faaborg’s collages — made mostly of materials traditionally associated with women’s crafts and including any old thing she can find around the house — have a homespun look and are beautifully designed, although some are a bit too cute for me.

According to Shari Hart from Tacoma’s Community & Economic Development, Faaborg “is an artistic gem. She finds and defines beauty in ordinary and unusual found items. Her artwork will draw you into layer upon layer of created pieces, collaged with a variety of materials and repurposed elements” including “the magic of old metal computer tape incorporated into beautiful weavings, embellished with square glass tiles and the beauty that can be created from old magazines.”

Hart goes on to say that Faaborg “has spent most of her 85 years refining her skills and giving workshops in basketry, batik, weaving, stitchery, painting, etc.

Elaine’s work has a world/tribal feel and each piece is a work of love-filled art. She reminds us all to look for beauty and possibility in ordinary life, in everyday things, and in everyone.”
Wow! I really regret not getting to see her show, but I will go back.

Judging from the photographs, the best of her works are a group of collages made from paper beads that she makes by cutting up old magazines and rolling them into tight cylinders and pasting them on a flat surface. These look like elegant and densely-packed logjams flowing in curvilinear patterns. I love them.

Proceeds from the sale of art in the exhibition will support Project One Heart, a non-profit that provides art-related youth outreach activities through the YWCA.

And now a word or two about the meeting of artists that was relocated to Tully’s on Broadway. The artists involved are the core group of artists who now own and operation the cooperative gallery once known as a.o.c. and soon to be re-named Gallery Impromptu (you heard it here first).

They are: Bill Colby, Trinda Love, Bea Geller, Chip van Gelder, Dorothy McCuistion and Jason Sobottka. And they are recruiting other artists.

I can’t say much more about their plans for the gallery, which is next door to One Hart Café, which is next door to the Grand Cinema, which is next door to Two Vaults Gallery — what an amazing block — because it’s not clear how solid their plans are right now. But they plan to have group shows and possibly one-person shows of their own work and works by guest artists, plus, tentatively, a juried exhibition to come in February or March. In the meantime, the sign on the window still says a.o.c. and the works on display are by the same artists who were in the “Own It!” show in December, but with all new works.

The bottom line is, if you like good art and coffee and movies, you can’t beat the 600 block of Fawcett.

[One Heart Café, Elaine Faaborg, through Jan. 31, 604 Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, 253.722.2940,]